My dissertation, which I’ve spent most of my time this week working pretty intensively on, deals with many things: weather, climate, snow, Thomas Jefferson, the kind of weird science found in almanacs, and the like. And also volcanoes. Especially volcanoes. Back in the summer of 2014 I did a post bringing you an eyewitness account of the monstrous April 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora, and today I found myself working with a very similar account of a much smaller eruption, that of Mt. Soufrière, in the West Indies, in the spring of 1812. “Much smaller” is, of course, relative. The Soufrière eruption was pretty horrific to those who lived through it, and I thought I’d share with you one of those stories–a little piece of the past you might shuffle past in a book if you ever saw it, or more likely would never come to your attention at all.
Soufrière, or more particularly Soufrière Saint Vincent, is a large volcano on the island of St. Vincent, in the Caribbean. The word “Soufrière” in French means “sulfur vent,” and there are actually several volcanoes with this name in the islands that used to belong to France and once formed some of the richest–and most brutal–European colonies in the New World. By 1812 St. Vincent was a British possession, and it was the captain of a British ship, the HMS Ringdove, who wrote this account of the great eruption of the Soufrière volcano that began on April 30, 1812. Captain William Dowers wrote:
Thursday, April 30th, 1812, at single anchor in Kingston Bay, St. Vincent’s. A.M. Light airs and hazy weather; observed thick columns of smoke, ascending to a great high from the Souffriere at the northern extremity of the island.
Soufriere as it appears in modern times. The last significant eruption was in 1979.
Overnight a strange roaring sound began to emanate from the island, and something resembling “a squall of wind” began approaching the Ringdove.
Shortened sail, and prepared for it. At 1.20 heard something falling on the water, like large drops of rain; in a few moments afterwards a thick cloud suddenly descended—it fell calm—and stones, from the size of a sparrow’s egg to grape-shot, fell on the deck. At 2.30. A.M. the roaring of the volcano became dreadfully loud, and terrific, a dark black cloud descended from the eastward, total darkness enveloped us, and vitrified ashes, and sand, fell very thick; the sea became agitated and confused…[T]he atmosphere over the N.W. point of the island, appears as if illuminated by an immense blaze of fire; vivid zig-zag lightning, perfectly blue, dancing about, in all the various forms of beautiful fire-works, and by its constant light, enables us to see an immense column of smoke, ascending to the height of 5 or 6 miles perpendicular; it then appears to explode, and rolls off in grand and majestic, thick, plumy clouds.
During the next day Captain Dowers decides to make a run for it, and Ringdove sails through the center of the disturbance. The rain of ash and dust from the volcano sounds like something out of Dante’s Inferno:
A fine powder, resembling a mixture of antimony and sulphur, continues falling from the clouds, and insinuates itself into the eyes, ears, and every part of the clothes (making every person on board look like millers), it fills the lay of the ropes, and choaks all the blocks…Immense columns of thick sulphrous smoke, are still ascending to an amazing height from the Souffriere. Employed all day in endeavouring to get up the Beguia channel, but the wind keeps flying about in light airs all round the compass; the ropes are so enlarged with the sand which has fallen, and the blocks choaked, that the brig is nearly unmanageable.
There are no pictures of the HMS Ringdove, but the ship, a Cruzier-class brig-sloop, would have looked something like this (except without the third smaller mast).
Captain Dowers also notices that the eruption has affected compasses, pulling their needles off true north and complicating navigation. The next day:
Employed shovelling up, and throwing overboard, the sulphuric powder, which, during the last two hours, has covered every part of the ship some inches. Began to scrub and wash the rigging, from the mast head to the deck. At 10 a breeze from the eastward, the atmosphere strongly impregnated with sulphur, and smelling like bilge water. Vast quantities of large trees and broken wood floating about, just torn by some violent effort of nature from the earth.
Bore down to speak a sloop, which proved to be from St. Eustatia to Grenada; he told us “that on Thursday night, to leeward of Dominica, he heard, from midnight, till past two o’clock, what he thought was a tremendous firing of cannon; that the sulphuric powder and ashes had been falling on board him since 2 P.M. of yesterday, when he was off St. Lucia. The atmosphere very dense and hazy; St. Vincent’s completely hid in the sulphurous vapour.
Volcanic ashes are floating in long streams from east to west, looking like the patches of gulf weed, generally seen in crossing the Atlantic.
Explorers head up the slopes of Soufrière to investigate the mountain. This photo was taken in 1902, near the date of its most destructive eruption.
At last the Ringdove sails out of the danger area toward Martinique, and the compasses return to normal.
It is not known how many people were killed in the 1812 eruption of Soufrière, though it was one of the larger of the mountain’s recent history. Other eruptions occurred in 1902, 1971 and 1979. The 1902 eruption was particularly destructive, killing over 1,600 people and wiping out much of the fragile remaining culture of the Carib Indians.
The image at the top of this article is a painting of the 1812 Soufrière eruption by English painter J.M.W. Turner, who painted various climate and environmental subjects of the time.